Jews from Arab countries, Iran are in need of support

The Kaddish Initiative takes root

Baghdad Jewish cemetery where Sass Peress' paternal grandfather is buried. (photo credit: SASS PERESS)
Baghdad Jewish cemetery where Sass Peress' paternal grandfather is buried.
(photo credit: SASS PERESS)
Many will remember how in 2017 Miss Iraq Sarah Idan was forced out of her country after sharing a photograph on social media of her posing at that year’s Miss Universe contest in Las Vegas with Israel’s representative. Idan was ostracized in her country but became an international cause célèbre, invited to speak by many Jewish and Zionist organizations, including at the United Nations. However, this unique turn of events had many other ramifications that could not be foreseen.
As a result of this episode, the person (whose name cannot be published due to death threats) who ran the Miss Iraq contest lost their government funding and sponsorships and went looking for other sources of revenue. He learned that the first-ever Miss Iraq was a Jewish woman named Renée Dangoor, who was crowned in 1947 in Baghdad, and her son, David Dangoor, is a prominent philanthropist and businessman living in London.
Reaching out to the global Jewish Iraqi community around the Diaspora looking for Renée’s son, the pageant owner stumbled upon Sass Peress, an Iraqi Jew who lives in Montreal and a relative of Dangoor’s. Peress agreed to help but asked him for a favor in return for the contact.
Peress asked if he knew a certain cemetery in Baghdad where his paternal grandfather was buried, although lacking the exact location. Within 72 hours, Peress was sent a picture of his grandfather’s grave in Sadr City. When he saw that the grave and others in the cemetery were in such dire condition, he asked the Iraqi to record for posterity as many of the names on other graves as possible.
Then came the sad realization that Peress would probably never be able to stand over his ancestors’ graves and recite the mourners’ Kaddish. Not just him, but few of the almost one million Jews, and their descendants, who fled or were pushed out of Arab countries during the last century would be able to visit or tend to their family’s graves.
Peress decided that he would organize a few local synagogues to say a mass Kaddish prayer on the Shabbat closest to November 30, which due to a law passed in the Knesset in 2014, is officially the Day of Commemoration to Mark the Departure and Expulsion of Jews from the Arab Countries and Iran.
He found that many Jews from the Middle East and North Africa had similar stories to his – and worse – with many cemeteries in the region either completely destroyed or in a high level of neglect and disrepair.
David Dangoor: Prayers as rectification.
In the first year, in 2018, 12 communities signed up to say the mass Kaddish. This grew to 50 last year. Rabbi Joseph Dweck, the senior rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community of the United Kingdom, wrote an azkara, a special memorial prayer for the occasion.
“More than a religious event, the recitation of the mass Kaddish and azkara are an important display of solidarity with the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa, and our history should be acknowledged and never forgotten, to make sure it is never repeated,” Sass Peress said about the idea.
Still little known, especially outside of Sephardi or Mizrahi circles, David Dangoor heard about his relative’s initiative and this year set up and supported a concerted and organized outreach to the wider Jewish world to place the annual Kaddish on the global Jewish calendar.
THIS YEAR the response has been enormous.
On November 28, the Shabbat closest to the Day of Commemoration, Jews around the world, from all backgrounds, will be saying the mass Kaddish and azkara prayers.
Over 100 organizations and communities have signed up at, including the Israeli umbrella organization for Jews from Arab countries, representing millions of people in the Jewish State. Maccabi World Union, the Jewish organization with the largest active membership in the world at over half a million, and the European Jewish Congress, the organization representing all Jewish communities in Europe, and dozens of others are all participating.
Almost 10,000 rabbis, lay leaders and ordinary people – ranging from ultra-Orthodox, hassidic, Modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform – from the four corners of the Diaspora have downloaded the azkara prayer from the website “The Kaddish Initiative.”
Dangoor feels that the prayers are an important rectification for a nearly forgotten event.
“Unlike the case of other Jewish tragedies, there is no communal showing of religious solidarity for the exodus and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries,” Dangoor said. “It is vital, thus, that this be a widely recognized initiative to say these prayers annually in synagogues and Jewish institutions in Israel and around the world. Even in communities where there are few Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, these prayers and a display of religious solidarity are vital for breaking down the barriers between our different communities.”
The Israeli government, which is finally recognizing the history and exodus of the Jews from Arab countries, is also supportive of this agenda.
“A fundamental cornerstone of the Jewish tradition is our collective memory. Therefore, I call on Jewish communities around the world to join in this global Shabbat of Remembrance,” Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich wrote in a letter of support for the initiative. “By reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish and an azkara (memorial prayer) on the Shabbat of November 28, we will stand united in solidarity in honor of those we cannot physically pay our respects to.”
It is hoped by Peress, Dangoor and millions of Jews whose ancestors lie in inaccessible cemeteries around the Middle East and North Africa that the mass Kaddish and azkara become an important part of the annual Jewish calendar.